What I Didn’t Know About My Teen’s Use of Social Media

Recently ABC’s Good Morning America aired a special series called “What Your Teens Don’t Want You to Know.” In case you missed it, the informative and enlightening series was about teens, their cell phones and social media. As a parent of a thirteen year old daughter, this was a very eye-opening interview. It’s agreed that most parents are concerned about their teen’s use of social media but since it is not something we grew up with, nor is it something we completely understand, many parents (myself included) are a little unsure of this new virtual territory. I believe there is a lot of good that can come from social media but I would be naive to think that it is completely safe and that my child wouldn’t be tempted to engage in activity on it that may get her into trouble. In the series “What Your Teens Don’t Want You to Know,” GMA correspondent T.J Holmes, met with a group of parents and their teenage daughters to discuss phones and social media. The parents in the interview discovered was that their daughters had downloaded “ghost” apps (apps that are not what they seem) on their phones. These apps have secret codes that allow users to send text messages or pictures that are hidden unless you have the code. One app in particular, Calculator+, appears to be just a regular calculator but once you put in your secret code, the hidden app is revealed. By using this app, teens can store private pictures and messages without their parent’s knowledge. The girls in the GMA interview also shared they each have a second Instagram account their parents don't know about. The account called a Finstagram (fake Instagram) and is for their friends' eyes only. "It's basically a fake Instagram that you use to, like, post embarrassing photos of your friends," explained one of the girls.”

The hugely popular app among teens, “Snapchat” allows users to send quick short pictures that disappear a few seconds after being viewed. The app in itself is not harmful but the way some people use it can be. Because the images disappear so quickly, many teens believe that it is not harmful. However, images can be forever saved through a screenshot on most phones. Furthermore, what many users may not realize is that according to Snapchat’s terms of agreement, teens are liable for all content they share or post on the app. My husband is a high school teacher and shared with our daughter a recent incident at his school where a teen boy was asking girls to send inappropriate (nude photos) of themselves to him on Snapchat (sexting). Thankfully, the girls told the administration and the young man was suspended. He also mentioned that the administration has warned them that as educators, if a teen ever sends them something inappropriate they should never forward the post (even to the principal) because then they would be guilty of posting something inappropriate.

While most social media apps are harmless and are mainly used by youth for fun to connect with their friends, the GMA interview did reveal that there are apps that law enforcement is watching very closely. The app KIK allows users to be anonymous and has been linked to several crimes. Another app considered dangerous by law enforcement is Omegle. This app comes with the warning that known child predators use the site. As a parent it is frightening to know that social media apps open the door to the entire world and you don’t really know who or when someone is talking to your kids. Just as I wouldn’t allow my thirteen year old to go to some places alone, I need to be just as vigilant that she is not going on the internet alone. Again, this was just not something that I or most parents had to navigate through during our own teen years. So, now as parents, we have no personal experience to reference. Clearly, the online world is new terrain for parents, teachers, and youth ministers.

The GMA series continued with a segment about cyber bullying. It’s true that kids will be kids and most would probably admit to sending or posting an unkind word about one of their peers. I remember a time when I was afraid that someone would write about me with a permanent marker on the wall of the bathroom stall at school. Or worse, someone would draw horns and a beard over my picture in the yearbook. It’s not that kids are any meaner than they were years ago; it’s that the world has changed because now young people have different tools (technology) to bully in a whole new way. Today, young people fear what will be posted about them and broadcasted for the whole world to see. Even more harmful, these hateful words and pictures can go viral meaning they will be posted and reposted thousands of times. Cyber bullying is defined as when harassment becomes repeated and intentional.

GMA repeatedly noted in their series that their intent was not to scare parents but rather to inform. GMA discovered through this series that many parents didn’t actually know what their kids were doing online. I’m going to have to plead guilty on this one. I know that my daughter uses Snapchat and Instagram because I’m one of her followers but have I searched her phone for ghost apps? No. Would I feel hurt and betrayed if I found them? Yes. The line between respecting a young person’s privacy and allowing them to grow up safely seems precarious in this new technological age. Broken trust between a parent and child was a surprising outcome from the GMA interviews. Both the parents and the teens who participated, felt like using these apps was hurting their relationships. Once the girls came clean and revealed the extent of their internet use and the ghost apps, the parents all agreed that they needed to be more vigilant in monitoring their child’s internet usage. One father, hurt from the broken trust, asked his daughter “why do you feel the need to hide this from us?” Another unexpected reaction came from one of the young girls who started to cry when she saw the pain and hurt on her mother’s face. When asked by GMA’s Holmes why she was crying the young girl said “she was afraid her parent’s wouldn’t trust her anymore.” She was obviously upset that she had broken her parents trust.

The GMA interview showed that communication between family members needs to be the number one priority in the home. As a parent I need to have honest and ongoing conversations with my teen daughter as we both navigate through this ever-changing world of social media.

What else can parents do? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Download the popular apps yourself and become familiar with how to use them
  2. Become aware of apps that search for a person’s age and gender. Ask your local law enforcement for the names of apps that they are watching for criminal behavior.
  3. Help you teen to understand that there is no anonymity online. Even for kids who are careful and use precautions in what they send out and to whom they send it to, the fact exists that once anything is posted online, it is public – even if the picture disappears in a matter of seconds. It's still possible for anything you post to catch up with you later in life.
  4. Basic Christian principles are important online too. Share with your teen what our faith teaches about the dignity of all life. Jesus taught us to love one another. Help your young person understand that just because they can anonymously send hurtful messages doesn’t mean they are free from the consequences. By posting hurtful words or picture they are causing pain in another person’s life. Kids have to own responsibly for their hurtful actions even on the internet.
  5. Many apps have “Terms of Agreements” that require that a user be over the age of 13 or have parental consent to use. Check the agreements on the apps your teens use.

Most importantly, talk with your teen about their use of social media apps. Have them show you the apps they use and teach you about them. Keep the lines of communication open about what is appropriate and what is not. Help your teens see the power of using the internet and social media for good.

References and resources: